"Fine dining" is one of those impossibly imprecise terms that invites discussion and debate about what it actually means.
Is fine dining formal dining? Does it mean multiple courses? Lengthy meals? Excellent service? Your best attire?
Surely, it demands that the food be compelling or at least comforting, whether it's classic or cutting-edge cuisine. Perhaps the recipes should have enough complexity of technique to suggest, "Don't try this at home."
The experience, one way or another, should be richly rewarding.
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If we can't agree what fine dining is, at least we can reach a consensus on what it isn't. That would be pretty much everything that's going on at a restaurant in Davis called Our House.
Don't let the billboard on Interstate 80 fool you. Our House overpromises and underdelivers.
From a menu that looks like it was designed by a fussy eater to "live" music that included an up-tempo piano version of "Send in the Clowns," Our House might lure you in with the promise of fine dining, but it sends you packing with a lingering rhetorical thought – "You can't be serious."
I mean, a piano rendition of "Send in the Clowns" should be used only as a last resort, like when the fire alarm and a gong aren't doing enough to clear the room.
What next? "Copacabana?" We heard it over dessert. Don't shoot the messenger, folks.
That night, when we toughed it out over a bland plate of fish and a serving of sauce-laden gnocchi with the consistency of Silly Putty, I raced to finish dessert and head for the nearest exit, convinced that a jazz version of "We Built This City" was moments away.
Even in Davis, where the dining standards are inexplicably lower than in Sacramento, there are certain things we shouldn't be able to do at a fine-dining restaurant – such as looking up from our table at a flat-screen TV and realize the Kings are in the midst of another drubbing.
Fine dining means we shouldn't have to take a stab in the dark on a $95 bottle of wine, described on the list as a red blend called Cyrus by Alexander Valley Vineyards. Blend of what? Our server gave us a blank look, as if she had been asked to explain the meaning of eternal happiness without using the letter "e."
A fine-dining establishment doesn't have some kind of herbal crème brûlée that elicits a quarrel at our table: I said it tasted like suntan lotion; my GF insisted it was more like baby shampoo. I'll go with inedible, tempered by flavor notes of something not found in the natural world.
Though we felt wildly misled by the promise of fine dining, our Our House experiences were not a failure. It's not a bad restaurant. It's a so-so restaurant, thoroughly, unabashedly and almost defiantly mediocre.
There were no intolerable moments (other than the music), but neither were there highlights (other than getting that $95 bottle of wine, a fine Bordeaux-style blend, for half price simply because it was a Sunday).
The 14-ounce New York steak with chimichurri butter comes with potato chips and nothing else. It was slightly overcooked and surprisingly bland. The only thing "fine dining" about it was the price – $25.
The thick brined pork chop was decent but a bit overcooked and dry. Unlike the vegetable-free zone of the steak dish, the chop came with two sides – a cabbage-y non sequitur called "dumpf kraut," which I had never heard of. It was earthy and flavorful and different. The root vegetables, however, were dry, bland and undercooked.
The tasty sauce with the pork chop got our attention, especially the tart cooked cherries. But $24 is getting into the Mulvaney's stratosphere, and for that price the pork chop needs to be perfectly cooked, if not life altering.
Ribs rarely seem to make an appearance at a fine-dining restaurant. Go figure. The sauce gets all over your hands. The meat gets stuck in your front teeth. Ribs tend to be a big, yummy mess, best enjoyed at places with a cartoon drawing of a pig on the sign out front. These were sweet with a garlicky soy sauce, but they were just too ordinary – and even a tad dry – to merit the $22 price tag. The grilled corn was almost interesting, but it's still plain ol' corn.
They charge $3 for bread made with "Dave Whitmire's 130-year-old sourdough starter," then serve something more suited for a fifth-grader's lunchbox – a tight and tender crumb, a limp crust, an absence of flavor. As sourdough aficionados, we asked our server about the starter's origins and got yet another version of "I dunno," which is not a hallmark of fine dining.
Our server at the Firehouse, for instance, gave the impression he could take apart and reassemble a Ferrari engine while blindfolded.
The service was what we have come to expect when we go to Davis – nice college students who work hard, mean well but who don't really plan to parlay their 1400 SAT scores into careers waiting tables. The lack of knowledge about the food and the wine is not their fault. The manager needs to demand minimum standards before servers are allowed to handle tables where dinner for two can easily climb over $100.
The wine list is tiny, almost entirely Californian and is probably weighted too much toward moderate ($50) and pricey (over $100) labels for a restaurant with food and service of this caliber. Would you really have the patience to enjoy a $125 bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon or a $235 Stag's Leap reserve while chomping on baby back ribs or wading through gnocchi drowning in a milky-white sauce?
That's a rhetorical question, one best addressed at the piano.
808 Second St., Davis
11 a.m to late night, Monday to Friday; 4:30 p.m. to late, Saturday and Sunday.
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Marginally.
The promise of fine dining, no matter your definition, is not delivered here. The food, the service, the experience – everything could stand to be upgraded.
This menu of chicken, ribs, steak, pork chops, fish, soups and salads is as straightforward and safe as you're likely to find at a serious restaurant. The wine list, small and focused, is tilted too much toward high-end bottles, given the caliber of the cooking.
We don't want to knock the bright, friendly and well-meaning staff. The hosts do a good job, but after that, the basics of table maintenance, and food and wine knowledge, simply fall short.
It's a decent room and bar, but the live music can be – take your pick – soothing, campy or nauseating.
For the quality of the cooking and the lack of creative touches, the prices are high. Steaks in the mid-$20s, a slab or ribs for $22, and a pork chop dish for $24. For those prices, it has to be more consistent and much more interesting. Sunday nights offer half-off bottles of wine, but the food should be 20 percent off daily for it to make sense.